My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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pointer remix in a culture of copy/paste code (MySpace layouts as remix)

Back in May, Dan Perkel and I gave a talk at ICA called “Copy, Paste, Remix: Profile Codes on MySpace” (an abbreviated crib of the talk is here). We wanted to explore whether or not MySpace profiles operate as a form of remix. We started sussing out something that I’d like to call “pointer remix.” I want to try to lay this out here because I think that it has tremendous implications for the conversations around remix that keep emerging.

One way to think about remix is as the production of a new artifact through the artistic interweaving of other artifacts. Many hip-hop songs are “remix” in that they mix different tracks to create a new one. Video mashups are a form of remix when a combination of video, audio, and images are reconnected to form something new. You can even argue that collage or 1970s punk clothing is a form of remix, as both took the old, chopped it up and made something new. Levi-Strauss’ discussion of “bricolage” is relevant here, as is the montage effect known as the Kuleshov Effect (especially for arguing that something “new” is created). Lots of work around remix is bubbling up, often with other terms (like Aram Sinnreich’s “configurable culture”). Getting into the nitty gritty of remix would take a dissertation, but hopefully you get the concept that I’m referencing.

All of this work on remix assumes that the artists possess the original or a copy of the artifact that will be remixed. The artist may or may not have the “rights” to possess or modify that artifact, but they have a copy none-the-less. When they create a remix, they are structurally able to distribute it (even if the legality of such distribution is challenged). Part of this has to do with the nature of digital media – a copy is often no different than the original. And making a copy is pretty trivial at this point.

With this in mind, think about an average MySpace profile. What should come to mind is a multimedia collage: music, videos, images, text, etc. This collage is created through a practice known as “copy/paste” where teens (and adults) copy layout codes that they find on the web and paste it into the right place in the right forms to produce a profile collage. One can easily argue that this is remix: a remix of multimedia to produce a digital representation of self. Yet, the difference between this and say a hip-hop track is that the producer of a MySpace typically does not “hold” the content that they are using. Inevitably, the “img src=” code points to an image hosted by someone somewhere on the web; rarely is that owner the person posting said code to MySpace (and thus, the ongoing question of “bandwidth theft”). The profile artist is remixing pointers, not content. If the content to which s/he is pointing changes, the remix changes.

An example that we discussed at ICA concerns the ever-loved world of cats. Say that my profile is filled with pictures of cats from all over the world. The owners of said cat pictures get cranky that I’m using up their bandwidth (or thieving) so they decide to replace the pictures of cats with pictures of cat shit. Thus, my profile is now comprised of pictures of cat shit (not exactly the image I’m trying to convey). This is what happened to Steve-O.

One of the most high profile cases of such content replacement came from John McCain’s run-in with MySpace profile creation. His staff failed to use images from their own servers. When the owner of the image McCain used realized that the bandwidth hog was McCain, he decided to replace the image. All of a sudden, McCain’s MySpace profile informed supporters that he was going to support gay marriage. Needless to say, this got cleaned up pretty fast.

Profile creation on MySpace is all about identity production and the remix that takes place there is clearly to that end. Yet, the artifacts that are produced (profiles) do not require creators to ever have the content that they are using in their possession in any form – they are simply remixing the pointers to display something unique about who they are. It is a bricolage of brands and images for identity purposes, created solely through a truly poststructuralist practice of pointing.

We craft our identity through pointing all the time. Language is mostly about pointers (“signs”). The list of favorite TV shows, movies, and music on social network sites are a linguistic pointer to these cultural referents. Yet, in a multimedia world, instead of having to just reference them by name, I can reference them by image, video, and audio, pulling a much more rich set of content into the fold. In some senses, these practices are the same as they both involve constructing a semiotic pointer to a cultural object. Yet, because multimedia referents are “hosted”, multimedia pointers can be altered. Furthermore, there’s a perceived cost to pointing (namely, bandwidth). And, besides, we never think of uttering the linguistic referent as making a “copy.”

As remix is ridden with questions of legality, I can’t help but wonder what the legal ramifications of pointer remix might be. We live in a world obsessed with copyright and IP, but isn’t pointing to something fair use? Imagine how ridiculous the world would be if you could only consume, but never link (linguistically or through html).

But let’s take a different angle for a moment. What about cultural and historical significance? There are all sorts of physical artifacts that must be preserved because of their historical importance (you’ll find Boston to be filled with all sorts of historical placards on houses). Might there be a time when we feel compelled to preserve the remix MySpace profile masterpiece of someone? Would the owner of content being pointed to be required to maintain that content? To pay for bandwidth? To permit a copy be made and then hosted on another server to relieve the bandwidth costs? While many argue that copies should not be permitted without permission, and some argue that pointing should not be permitted without permission (a.k.a. “deep linking”), what happens when a culture exists that rests on pointer remix for identity construction? Everything about our culture is recursive – we are all standing on the shoulders of giants and it’s definitely turtles all the way down.

We live in a world where cultural objects are consumed to produce identity (gotta love de Certeau). Pointer remix is part of how this is happening. And yet, there seems to be something funny about it… It’s not quite remix, it’s not quite collage, but it’s definitely a powerful semiotic practice. Dan and I are going to keep playing with these ideas, but I figured y’all might enjoy toying with them some too, especially if you have a mind for semiotics.

[Note: If you aren’t familiar with Dan Perkel’s work, you should be because he kicks ass. His blog is here. And a really good paper for all of you interested in education is Copy and Paste Literacy? Literacy Practices in the Production of a MySpace Profile.]

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7 comments to pointer remix in a culture of copy/paste code (MySpace layouts as remix)

  • “Might there be a time when we feel compelled to preserve the remix MySpace profile masterpiece of someone? Would the owner of content being pointed to be required to maintain that content? To pay for bandwidth? To permit a copy be made and then hosted on another server to relieve the bandwidth costs?”

    Hotlinking would not be an essential part of the ‘MySpace profile masterpiece.’ Where the image is hosted doesn’t affect whether the profile is a masterpiece or not, so why should the owner of the content be required to maintain it or pay for bandwidth. If the work is licensed for use in remix or if the use in remix is ‘fair use’ then the remixer should be making a copy and hosting on their own so as to not incur any cost to the original host/creator.

    Also, is hotlinking really ‘pointing’? Pointing would seem to imply something that leads the viewer/experiencer to the original creator. A link is pointing, but most people wouldn’t consider hotlinking an image pointing because nothing about it says, “Go to this site.” If for some reason the source of the image is important to the remixed product (if the user seeing the remixed thing is expected to know where the image comes from to enhance the experience) there are other ways to indicate this other than hotlinking.

  • L

    I’ve been wondering recently why there aren’t tools that support “pointer remixing” in diverse media such as music, movies, and microcode.

    Here at the farm, we’re trying to make some headway on the last of these, but there’s no reason why this “recipe” based architecture we’ve built cannot be applied to music and movies too.

    In cooking, you can give someone the recipe without having to transfer egg property rights — they can just get their own eggs. Similarly, for music or movie remixes, something akin to “pointer remixes” or “recipe-driven remixes” could be copied without (?) needing to transfer IP rights.

    As long as the consumer has access to suitably-substitutable ingredients (this song on MP3 rather than MP4 or that movie in Flash rather than Quicktime), and the requisite pointer dereferencing / search reco engine tech, in concert with a small program that re-enacts the original remix based on some recipe, the original remixer’s mix can be, more or less, reconstituted wholly “intact”.


  • “Imagine how ridiculous the world would be if you could only consume, but never link (linguistically or through html).”

    Occasionally one sees terms of service on a corporate web site that say “no linking to our web site” or “only link to our front page” accompanied by appropriate legalese.

    I’m not sure what teeth that legalese has. But it seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Web is about.

  • I tend to agree with Albert ↑. I am somewhat biased because I do host my own site and pay for my own bandwidth, but I think I’m being pretty objective in this case. I license all my images and all my content under a Creative Commons license. I actually encourage people to take my images, my content, and remix them, making something new.

    But it just seems like common courtesy that if someone want to use an image on my site they’ll download the image and host it themselves. I’m not in the image hosting business. For while you can copy an image (i.e. save an instance of it on your own computer/server) you can’t copy bandwidth. That’s a measurable resource.

    I mean, what if someone jacked into my home power line and used the power they jacked to create some cool work of art with it? The power is a measurable resource that costs someone something. I think there’s a difference between “intellectual property” and “physical property.” One is a vague term that (in my opinion) is goofy, and the other is a very tangible term, literally.

  • Hypertext / hypermedia is pointer remix. Although one might be able to define at a specific combination of linked resources on the web as an “original,” web production is almost inherently a process of doing pointer remix of “original” text, images, audio, video etc.

  • Michael Chui

    If you deign to preserve a “masterpiece” of pointers, then first realize that said masterpiece may be inherently impossible to preserve. That is to say, it may be dynamic: a remix including RSS feeds, for instance. My LJ friends page and my feedreader site are both expressions of my identity, in their own way, and they update as people post.

    Assuming it’s static, though, then it’s quite easy. The preserving site ought to be in a single place, hosted by a single server, and any hotlinked content should be downloaded and preserved alongside it. The legality of such a download is a completely different question, obviously, but a one-shot download is not a bandwidth suck.